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Most people think of formal language as the ideal form, with less formal versions being a devolved, flawed, or generally worsened form of the formal language. It certainly sounds reasonable; formal language certainly feels harder to acquire and use consistently, for one. As a result, it’s a stance that many people (including me, prior to studying linguistics) take without even thinking about it: obviously, formal language is the language, and informal language is its cheap approximation.

In case I haven’t telegraphed it enough yet, I’d like to argue that this is incorrect. Informal language is not what you use when it isn’t worth the effort to use formal language, and informal language is not a strictly less governed system than formal language.

Since that might be butting up against ingrained opinion, let me start off with an analogy to levels of formality in another domain: fashion. Obviously, formal clothing like suits and ties and dresses can make people look really good for a gala event. But if you’re hoping to play a game of backyard football, they’re terrible, because they restrict your movement, and you’ll be unwilling to join into a dogpile because you’ll never get the blood and mud out. Similar problems arise if you’re working in a factory, doing dentistry, painting — the list goes on. Even just the fact that it’s summer now renders almost all of my formal clothing off-limits, lest I develop heatstroke.

[George Clooney all muddy in "Leatherheads"]

Case in point.

Returning to formal language, we see many of the same points. Formal language can sound nicer than informal in some settings — oratory springs to mind. In other cases, whether or not it sounds nicer, it’s more appropriate. One wouldn’t, for instance, write an academic paper in informal English and expect it to be accepted. (Much as one wouldn’t wear a well-worn T-shirt to a job interview.) And because it tends to be the intelligent or successful who are most often in these “formal language required” settings, it’s unsurprising that formal language is believed to be the better form.

But informal language has its advantages. I’m hesitant to use singular they in formal writing, which at times forces me to concoct suboptimal versions of a sentence and pick one that I don’t like, only because the one that would sound best and most natural doesn’t feel formal enough. This need for formality slows me down and prevents me from saying what I’d really like to. Informal English is more flexible, and allows me to say what I mean more directly. Informal English isn’t a devolution because it lets me express myself better.

Another example is with contractions — and this also shows that informal English has its own rules apart from formal English. In most people’s forms of formal English, contractions are a no-no. But informal English allows both contractions and their uncontracted counterparts, the latter usually being used for emphasis. Consider these song lyrics:

I didn’t see this coming,
no, I did not.”

I find the emphasis of the second line to be greatly reduced in the formal equivalent “I did not see this coming, no, I did not.” In fact, I occasionally find when I’m writing in formal English that the uncontracted version sounds too strident, but my hands are tied.

Stan Carey also talked about this earlier in the week, specifically in the context of song lyrics. Informal language of course thrives in song lyrics, of course, but that doesn’t stop people grousing about it. But wouldn’t it be far worse to be stuck with formal songwriters, who report that they “can not get any satisfaction” or that you “are nothing but a hound”?

Stan’s post links to a January discussion by Geoff Pullum of what he called “Normal and Formal” language, and how the competent writer is the one who switches between them readily and appropriately, not the one who unfailingly aims for Formal. His use of “Normal” in place of “informal” is important. Informal language is normal. It’s how virtually all of us talk to each other, even the most highly educated or successful.

That’s part of why formal language can feel more difficult than informal. We use informal language constantly, and as a result it comes naturally to us. Formal language is rarer, and like tying a tie, it’s hard when you’re not used to doing it. Not only that, but it can end up feeling pretty unnatural when adhered to too closely. Pullum gives the example of commenter who wanted him to write “whom are you supposed to trust” (instead of who), despite its stiltedness. He didn’t, and he was right.

Summary: Informal language is not a devolved version of formal language. It has rules that formal language doesn’t (e.g., choosing whether to use a contraction), and is in general more natural and readable than formal language. Informal language is, as Geoff Pullum puts it, normal language. This means that while formal language can be good and at times more appropriate than informal, it’s not always right, and it shouldn’t be treated as the ideal form of language.

The English subjunctive may well be dying, but I am shedding no tears for it. This unconcern is, perhaps, a minority view amongst men of letters, for whom saying if I were instead of if I was is often a marker of a proper education, but I’m comforted by the fact that it is the majority view amongst users of English.

The subjunctive, if you’re not familiar with it, is a verbal mood* that appears in a variety of languages. It’s prominent in Romance languages (if you’ve taken French or Spanish, you’ve surely encountered it), and it exists to various extents in other Indo-European languages as well, including English. The basic idea of the subjunctive mood is that it expresses something counter to reality. For instance, one might say:

(1) If Alicia were the President, she’d get Party Down back on the air.

Normally, you’d say “Alicia was”; “Alicia were” would be a misconjugation. But because we’re talking about a counterfactual situation (Alicia is not really the president), we can use the subjunctive mood instead. And in the subjunctive mood, the present tense of the verb to be is were, regardless of the subject.

Often you’ll see people using the regular present tense in these situations, writing in (1) “if Alicia was the President”. That’s because the English subjunctive is pretty weak. It can be used in counterfactual situations, but it generally isn’t required. Because it’s optional and subtle (it looks just like the plural indicative forms of most verbs), it’s no surprise it’s disappearing.

Many grammarians wail and gnash teeth for this loss, and try to explain how important the subjunctive is.** Some explain that the subjunctive stresses the counterfactual nature of the situation, as though if you saw “if Alicia was president” in (1), you’d be thinking “I don’t know Alicia was president!”. Of course no one thinks this, because the counterfactuality is already established by the use of if.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that are some situations where the subjunctive is obligatory. And I say obligatory here meaning that I don’t get the right meaning out of the sentence if the subjunctive isn’t used. One occurred to me during a little monologue I was having in my head as I walked across campus the other day:

(2a) He’s obsessed with the idea that everybody admire him.
(2b) He’s obsessed with the idea that everybody admires him.

In (2a), with the subjunctive, our nameless character hopes that everybody admires him, suggesting a dearth of self-esteem. In (2b), with the indicative, our nameless character believes that everybody admires him, suggesting an overabundance of self-esteem.*** Here’s another one that just came to me, and here not using the subjunctive seems very awkward (although I’ve found examples of it in the corpus):

(3a) I require that it be done tomorrow
(3b) ?I require that it is done tomorrow

So, you might say, how can I idly declare the subjunctive on its way out while I also declare its necessity? Well, quite simply, if it disappears, we’ll do something else. In the case of (3b), it seems that this indicative form is gaining traction. As for (2a), by just changing the word idea to hope or desire, we get the same irrealis reading as (2a) without requiring the subjunctive. When language change happens, it doesn’t become impossible to say something. It just becomes impossible to say it the old way.

The worst case scenario is that the meanings of (2a) and (2b) get said the same way (with the indicative form admires), that they become a little bit ambiguous, and that we have to rely on context to tell them apart. Even that isn’t a bad situation, since we already do that with so many other things in language. The difference is critical in our current form of English, but it probably won’t be in future forms.


*: The subjunctive is properly called a mood, not a tense, because it exists across tenses; there are past, present, and future subjunctives. This Wikipedia article has some good info on this. The “standard” mood of English is known as the indicative, because it indicates what is really there.

**: I’m especially fond of the Academy of Contemporary English’s thoughts on the matter: “[Not using the subjunctive forms] is so common, in fact, that few people realise that they are using bad English when they mix them up. The difference is of the utmost importance […]”

NB: when only a few people notice a language distinction, it is not important, let alone of the utmost importance.

***: I won’t spoil the minor mystery by revealing which of the two I was actually thinking.

To a linguist, there is an obvious difference between verbal and oral: only the first word can be used to mean “pertaining to a verb”. But for people who don’t talk about parts of speech so often, the more relevant question is whether verbal can refer to spoken language (as opposed to written language), or if it can only refer to the more general sense of all language:

(1a) The written warning is primarily the verbal warning put in writing […]
(1b) […] general verbal skills, such as verbal fluency, ability to understand and use verbal reasoning, and verbal knowledge.

Some people insist that verbal can’t be used as in (1a). Verbal is derived from the Latin verbum, meaning “word”, and that means that it only distinguishes things involving words from things not involving words. This is the usage in (1b), where verbal reasoning is implicitly differentiated from mathematical reasoning, or spatial reasoning, or any other form of reasoning that is not based in words. Clearly this is a valid usage of verbal.

And, while we’re at it, we can quickly agree that oral would be inappropriate for the usage in (1b). “Oral knowledge”, for instance, is specifically knowledge that is spoken aloud, and I really can’t see that being the intended meaning. I think we can also all agree that oral is definitely appropriate for the usage in (1a). So what we have a is 2×2 chart, with three of the values filled in:

using words spoken
verbal YES (1b) ? (1a)
oral NO (1b) YES (1a)

The only remaining question is whether verbal is allowable in that last cell, with the meaning “spoken”. And the answer is yes, and it has been almost since verbal‘s first appearance in English. The Oxford English Dictionary first attests verbal in 1483, but at that point it modifies people. William Caxton writes:

We be verbal, or ful of wordes, and desyre more the wordes than the thynges.”

The first attestation of verbal meaning “composed of words” comes between 50 and 100 years later, in either 1530 or 1589.* And the first attestation of verbal meaning “conveyed by speech” comes in 1617:

“The Chamber of the Pallace where verball appeales are decided […]”

This meaning has persisted. I looked at the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) for the most common nouns to follow verbal over the past 200 years. The two most common collocates were communication and expression, each with 43 hits. Unfortunately, looking at the contexts in which these were used, it’s hard for me to tell which meaning was intended. But the third most common collocate, message, appears 40 times, spread out over the past two centuries. And these are pretty unambiguously examples of the “spoken” meaning, because it’s rare that you’d need to distinguish message delivered in words from those that aren’t. For instance:

“His reply was this verbal message: ‘Wait — and trust in God!'” [1875]
“The verbal message is the key to the written one.” [1909]

I don’t have numbers on the relative usage of the two meanings of verbal, so I’m not going to try to say that one is more common than the other. But it is pretty clear that the “conveyed by speech” meaning is valid.

Does this acceptability mean that you should unquestioningly use it in this way? Not necessarily; there is a potentially significant ambiguity here, so it’s not the best choice in all situations. On occasion, it will matter whether verbal means “conveyed by speech” or “involving words”. If I write to a tutor and ask them to improve my verbal skills, it may be ambiguous as to whether I’m looking for instruction in public speaking or vocabulary building. That’s a trivial example, but in legal contexts, it’s probably better to refer to oral contracts, warnings, etc. than verbal ones, just to avoid the ambiguity.

In most cases, where this ambiguity is small or unimportant, you can and should use whichever feels better to you. You can freely swap between the two meanings in different contexts, as I do. A lot of the time, the context (especially what noun verbal is modifying) will clarify things. So in the end, our chart becomes:

using words spoken
verbal YES YES
oral NO YES

Summary: Verbal can refer either to anything delivered in words or something that is specifically spoken. This latter usage is sometimes condemned as modern sloppiness, but it’s been persistently attested for 400 years. The ambiguity is generally not sufficient to be problematic, so it’s only in cases where precision is paramount that the latter usage should be avoided.


*: The 1530 attestation is listed under this definition, but its usage seems to me identical to Caxton’s usage, modifying people. The 1589 attestation is unambiguously referring to language, referring to “verbale sermons”.

It’s nearly Xmas, so I’m feeling like posting something imperceptibly more trivial than usual. In a sometimes effective attempt to block out the Christmas songs being hummed everywhere I go (most of all by my parents, who want to stop but can’t), I’ve been going through some of my old favorite songs.

One of these is “Me and Mia” by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and every time I listen to it, I’m struck by the way Leo pronounces the word forgotten in the line “call your friends ’cause we’ve forgotten / what it’s like to eat what’s rotten”. Here’s the album version of the line [at the 0:42 & 1:30 marks]

I love the way he says it, like he’s swallowing the end of the word and just barely spitting back out. And he seems to be fairly consistent in how he pronounces forgotten in this song: here’s a live version with the same pronunciation (around the 1:25 mark). Since I’ve found it such a striking pronunciation and since I’m a linguist, I figured that I could figure out what makes it distinctive.

Let’s start off by talking about the canonical American English pronunciation of forgotten, which is probably going to be something like [fɚgɑtən]. If you, like me, aren’t at home with the International Phonetic Alphabet, the basic gist is as follows. The first syllable is an f sound followed by an er sound (ɚ). That weird symbol is a rhotic schwa; the er sound is not actually two distinct sounds, but rather a single vowel whose third formant is lowered, which we perceive as a combination of a vowel and an r. This syllable doesn’t really impact the end of the word, so let’s move on.

The second syllable sets up Leo’s distinctive pronunciation of the third. The two phonemes in this syllable, [g] and [ɑ], are both located in the back of one’s mouth. For [g], you push the back of your tongue up against your soft palate, back behind your teeth. Then, to make [ɑ], you pretty much push your tongue as far down and back in your mouth as you do for any English sound. If you try overexaggeratedly saying “got”, you’ll hopefully feel what I’m talking about here. If you don’t, just trust me that your tongue is further back in your mouth than normal as you finish up this syllable.

If it helps, here's a vowel chart for California English. The vowels' positions are loosely correlated with the where your tongue in your mouth. The left is the front of your mouth, the top the roof of your mouth. Notice ɑ is in the bottom right.

And now the third syllable. Let’s start with the canonical form of it, [tən]. After jamming your tongue way back in your mouth last syllable, now you push your tongue up against the back of your teeth to make a [t], relax it a bit to make a lax vowel of some sort (possibly a schwa, but this will vary), and then push your tongue up against your teeth again to make an [n]. Or, at least, that’s what you would do if you were overenunciating.

In real-life American English, you’re going to replace that [t] with what phoneticians call a “flap” (ɾ), a quick tap of your tongue against your gumline that’s sort of a midpoint between t, d, and r.* In addition, you might not make a separate vowel+n pair, but instead, you’ll do a syllabic n, taking advantage of the ability to sustain a nasal stop like n. And that gets you what I’m going to call the “relaxed” pronunciation of forgotten.

With that as a base form, what’s Leo doing? Well, at the end of the second syllable, his tongue is way in the back of his mouth. Instead of moving his tongue all the way forward to make the t or flap sound, he uses another allophonic variant, the glottal stop. If you’re not familiar with the term, think of either a Cockney pronunciation of bottle, or the word uh-oh. There’s a weird gap in the middle of these words; the two syllables are clearly connected by something, but it’s more of a silence than a sound. If anything, it might sound like a weird gasp. That is the glottal stop, where one’s vocal folds close up and then release a brief burst of air as a little creaky pop.

The glottal stop doesn’t require the tongue to move from its back-of-the-mouth position, so when it comes time to make the [n], Leo’s tongue is further back than if he’d made a proper t or flap. When he goes to make the n sound, he doesn’t move his tongue all the way forward, creating a “retracted” n that’s located further back in his mouth than a normal n.

That’s a lot of words about something that might seem rather uninteresting — I started by saying “oh, it’s neat how Ted Leo sort of swallows the end of his word” and concluded by saying “oh, the reason why it sounds like he’s swallowing the syllable is because the syllable is further back in his mouth”. But there’re two things I found interesting in that analysis. One is that it’s kind of neat that we do have this phonetic intuition telling us that sounds produced further back than usual sound like they’re being swallowed, even if we don’t consciously notice where our tongues are when we’re making such noises. The second is that it’s a good illustration of how sounds are affected by the phonetic environment; if it weren’t forgotten, but rather the made-up word fortetten, swallowing that last syllable wouldn’t have been natural.


*: Wikipedia has a concise but somewhat confusing overview of the way flaps work in different forms of English, if you’re interested.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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